Feel the Fear and Cook it Anyway
Earlier this year I spent a morning at the Billingsgate Seafood School above the historic fish market in London's Docklands. Following a challenging 4.30am wake-up call, I headed off through the wintry dark to a seemingly parallel world of bright lights and wet floors, steel-capped boots and white wellies, noisy banter and fish. Gleaming whiff-free fish. Boxes and boxes of it, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Veteran fishmonger Ken Condon, now in his 80s, gave me a whistle-stop tour of the market floor. At every turn there was something to surprise and enthral. Huge octopus with suckers the size of bagels, massive Caribbean fish in all the colours of the rainbow, hitherto unheard of varieties of smoked fish, tanks of prowling crabs and lobsters, piles of juicy scallops and clams, and – most fascinating of all – water-filled metal drawers full of writhing eels.
This eye-opener of a tour was followed by a welcome breakfast at the seafood school upstairs. We were greeted with steaming cups of coffee, toast and scrambled eggs with delicious smoked salmon, expertly sliced paper-thin by Ken. I came away with a capacious cool-bag bulging with spanking fresh fish, plus newfound knowledge of how to deal with razor clams and cuttlefish, skin an octopus, shuck oysters and painlessly despatch a lobster.
At a more down-to-earth level, cooking fish is so much easier than you might think, but many people are afraid of it. This may be because of childhood memories of bones, or the smell (fresh fish doesn't), or those fishy eyes staring up from the fishmonger's slab – in the days when there were fishmongers, that is. Or it may be down to simple lack of confidence. If you are new to fish cookery, arm yourself with a good fish cookery book, and stick to simple methods such as shallow-frying, grilling and steaming. Or try the quick foolproof method of roasting fish in a parcel, as in my recipe for Sea Bass Parcels with Fennel and Preserved Lemon
The key to successful fish cookery is knowing when your fish is cooked. A step too far and fish will be overdone, so resist the urge to check emails instead of keeping an eye on your fish. Just at the point when you are thinking it will need another five minutes, make a small incision down to the backbone in the thickest part and press the flesh open. Perfectly cooked fish will look just opaque and the flesh will be starting to form flakes. Cook for longer if necessary, but if the fish is almost done, all you need do is move it to a warm place, cover with foil and wait a few minutes for the heat to spread evenly though the flesh. It's as easy as that!
© Christine McFadden, April 2014
Find out about fish
www.fishonline.org (Marine Conservation Society website)